The Assassination of Painting

I have to be honest up front and say that I have never liked or appreciated the work of Joan Miro.  However, the critical analysis surrounding a major new show — “Joan Miró: Painting and Anti-Painting 1927-1937” — at MOMA, New York, has done its work and gotten me interested.

The exhibition illustrates, step by step, exactly how Miró stalked and attacked painting — zapped its conventions, messed up its history, spoiled its market value — through 12 distinct groups of experimental works produced over a decade. If, in the end, painting survived, that’s neither here nor there. The story’s the thing. Crisp, clear and chronological, the show reads like a combination of espionage yarn and psychological thriller set out in a dozen page-turning chapters,

says Holland Cotter in the New York Times.  The first seven pieces in the show display Miro getting rid, more or less, of paint.   The next set shows what Cotter calls the elimination of “skill”:

The wood panel used as a support in a piece called “Spanish Dancer I” is covered with a sheet of colored paper. A small rectangle of plain sandpaper is tacked on top of it. Glued to the sandpaper is a tiny cutout image of a woman’s shoe. That’s about it: no paint, almost no image, almost no artist.

Cotter notes additional series seemingly aimed at destroying standard notions of art history, collages and sculpture.

By 1934, collage, assemblage, drawing and painting had blurred together into freakish hybrids that seem products less of objective experiment than of pathological obsession. Two drawing-collages on reflective paper from this time have an unhinged, fun-house look. A third, of uncertain date, combines ripped paper-doll figures with tied-on cardboard paint tubes resembling cartridge shells. The whole piece looks derelict and must have even when new.

Another set of over-sized pastels are followed by colourful painted miniatures.  Then:

He makes just one more murderous lunge at tradition, in a series of paintings on Masonite panels from 1936. The attack is very physical and feels a bit desperate. In many ways this series brings him back to 1927. The pictures are abstract; he leaves the Masonite surface mostly bare. But what he adds has changed: oil stains, vomitlike substances and fecal-looking hunks of tar and dirt. In addition he hacks away at the surface, stabbing and gouging and leaving deep ruts and splintery scars.

Cotter makes an interesting point:  As durability was one of the attributes that Miro struggled against, one has to wonder whether he expected or wanted any of these works to actually survive.

The critic completes the exhibition and declares it a marvelous tour de force.  It is not

the blockbuster slog but the experience of one artist’s creative process and the experience of an exhibition as a form of thinking. Like reading a book, the process makes you part of the trip, not just a witness to it. In this case the trip is fairly demanding but one I suspect that audiences with even a casual interest in how art is conceived and made will enjoy.

He is probably right.  I would enjoy the show for what I can learn about technique and meaning rather than from a new enjoyment of the works themselves (which I still don’t like).  And it is hard to ask more of an exhibition than that.

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